Every evening at 22:00, I receive a reminder to go over my day in my habit-tracking app. It’s a good day when I can check off every single one.
Though my long-term aims are big, the best thing I can do for myself right now is to start small, with the foundational habits upon which larger success can be built.
Small habits are easy to underestimate. They can seem inconsequential, though capable of actually yielding big results over time. There’s a temptation to try to do bigger things, which can doom us to failure. By starting small, we have a much greater chance of making it stick.
Some habits I track in my app might be surprising. Flossing, for example, is really important for me. It’s important for oral health, of course, but it’s also important because it’s a form of self care. When in the depths of depression, I tend not to floss, but when I make a good habit of doing it every day, it feels good. It’s me demonstrating to myself that I do actually give a shit.
I won’t track these habits forever, really just until they’re well enough developed that I no longer need the added support to help ensure follow-through.
These habits were chosen deliberately, with specific outcomes and long-term results in mind. To clarify what I mean, let’s look at what I’m working on right now and why.
These are the things I try to do in the morning. I can’t always do all of them, but when I do it really shapes the entire day very positively. By beginning with these things, I set myself up to be in a proactive mode. Nobody is at their best when their day starts with emails and social media. Nobody is at their best when in a reactive state of mind from the get-go.
- Wake up early. This means waking up before my partner, usually by around 5:30. Having solo time early in the morning is great. I can focus much more easily, and it’s the best time of day for me to write.
- Check weight. As I’m trying to improve my diet, get more exercise, and lose about 8kg (17.6lbs), monitoring my weight is important. It’s not a number I obsess over, just one that’s a useful reference. The numbers get logged in an Excel spreadsheet, where I can also view my progress on a graph. I also have the spreadsheet set up so that I can subtract the weight of whatever garments I’m wearing so I can get my actual weight without being naked, which is especially important in the winter when my apartment is freezing.
- Journaling. A few pages of stream-of-consciousness journaling, in the tradition of Julia Cameron’s morning pages.
- Meditation. 10-15 minutes sitting meditation, usually a guided meditation using the Headspace app, but sometimes an extended vipassana meditation led by Tara Brach.
- Wash face. A really basic thing that I’ve never been very good about. Helps me be fully awake before I sit down to write. Note that I don’t do it earlier, because I find that journaling is often more fruitful if I begin it when the residue of sleep is still clinging to my mind.
- Writing and editing. Blogging, essays, etc. Whatever I’m working on. Usually at least 30 minutes of focused effort on writing, but could be up to a couple hours if I have that time available to me.
- Core exercises. Just a handful of movements that help me maintain some basic strength. Push-ups, squats, pull-ups (at the nearby park where there’s a pull-up bar), bicycle crunches, and kettlebell swings. Altogether takes less than ten minutes and really helps. I need to include some basic mobility work (will add that soon).
So that’s what I (ideally) do in the morning before going off to work. On days when I get all of it done, it’s fantastic. It really sets me up for a good day overall.
And here are the other things I’m presently tracking:
- 90-day no-shopping challenge. If it isn’t something strictly necessary like food, I’m not buying it. This is to help change my spending habits and to reduce the amount of stuff cluttering up my life. We really don’t need most of what we buy, so I’m trying to buy as little as possible.
- 90-day daily discard. As I move towards a functional minimalism in my life, getting rid of what I don’t need is obviously a core part of that. This is a habit of getting rid of at least one thing every day. Doesn’t need to be big, but it needs to be something.
- Study Japanese. This is self-explanatory. I need the language skills for my life in Japan, so I need to study daily.
- Speak Japanese. This one is more difficult. Even in English, I don’t usually talk to people much outside of work, and frankly I have a lot of anxiety around speaking Japanese, so I don’t speak it nearly as much as I need to. Little by little, this is getting better, though. Probably the most challenging habit on the list.
- Get at least 10,000 steps. This is actually really easy for me and doesn’t need to be on the list at all, but I enjoy checking it off. My daily average is around 16,000 steps currently.
- Floss. Yup. Flossing is important.
- Track my diet. Important for establishing healthier eating habits and achieving weight-loss goal.
- Practice gratitude. Because the more you practice appreciation, the more you are aware of the good stuff, which does wonders for your outlook.
- Zero alcohol. Japan has a pretty big drinking culture, and it’s easy to fall into the habit of having something to drink every evening after work. That doesn’t do me any good, though, especially when depression is something I have to contend with (not helpful in losing weight, either). Currently taking a break from it entirely, and will likely next enjoy a beer on the beach this summer.
- In bed before midnight. Ideally, in bed by about 23:00, but that isn’t always possible. Sleep is important, though, so I’m trying to make more of an effort.
So that’s seventeen things altogether, which is way more habits than anyone sensible would tell you to try to establish at any one time. Many of them are quick and easy to do, however, and many are easy to build into my daily routine. I run out of time sometimes and miss things for that reason, but it isn’t actually as hard as you’d expect to work everything into a normal day. Additionally, many of these things were already well on their way to being fully formed habits.
Individually, they’re all good habits to have. Put them all together and the cumulative effect is big. They won’t fix my problems directly, but they do put me in a much better position to fix what I want to fix.